At Christmas, the story of two popes is a tale of hope and redemption | Anthony McCarten

The writer reveals the background to his new film about Pope Benedict’s surprising decision to quit

On 11 February 2013, a 600-year-old tradition was shattered: Pope Benedict XVI made a startling announcement. He would, owing to his advanced age, resign, but would retain a living title, “pope emeritus”.

Within weeks, the great doors of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican were sealed and the cardinals were drawn into conclave for the second time in less than a decade. When the doors opened again a few days later, the charismatic Jorge Bergoglio, who would take the name Francis, had been elected. The world, for the first time since the year 1415, had two living popes.

The reasons for Benedict’s cataclysm became fodder for speculation. A pope, surely, must die on the job. He had to. Wasn’t this an integral part of the job description? Not just tradition; it was virtually dogma. As the Washington Post, citing a theological expert, explained: “Most modern popes have felt that resignation is unacceptable except in cases of an incurable or debilitating disease – that paternity, in the words of Paul IV, cannot be resigned.” So why did Benedict, the most traditional pope of the modern era, do the most untraditional thing imaginable? (Poor health has usually been an asset to a pope, in that it re-enacts – for all to see – Christ’s suffering on the cross.) And how could this ultra-conservative protector of the faith, guardian of doctrine, even contemplate doing so when, in all likelihood, he would be surrendering the chair of St Peter to the radical Bergoglio, a man so different from him, in character and views?

In film and book, I tell the tale of an odd couple whose destinies converged and who influenced each other profoundly.

Let us consider Francis first, or, as we first encounter him, Cardinal Bergoglio. A fun-loving Argentinian, on the surface a humble man, an extrovert, a simple dresser (he wore the same pair of black shoes for 20 years, wears a Swatch) and an on-off-on-again advocate of liberation theology, a Catholic movement that seeks to aid the poor and oppressed through direct involvement in political and civic affairs. He’s a man with the common touch. A natural man of the people. Once had a girlfriend. Has worked as a bouncer at a tango club. An ardent fan of football.

Pope Francis and Pope Benedict at a Vatican celebration in 2016 of Benedict’s 65th anniversary of his ordination as a priest.
Pope Francis and Pope Benedict at a Vatican celebration in 2016 of Benedict’s 65th anniversary of his ordination as a priest. Photograph: AP

Benedict, the former Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, on the other hand, is an intellectual German, suspicious of humour. He’s a luxury-savouring, somewhat dandyish introvert (he revived the papal tradition of red velvet slippers, wears a Rolex), who feels that the church’s refusal to yield and change is its greatest strength and, indeed, the secret of its timeless durability. While sincere about his sacred duties, he completely lacks the common touch. A reclusive theologian who lacks in-the-field experience. Could not tell Arsenal from Real Madrid. Has never, to our knowledge, spoken a romantic word to another soul.

The theme that arises from even a superficial study of both men is that of “sin”, and more specifically of the grace and extra wisdom that comes if sinners can acknowledge their failings and put their sins behind them. How much wiser, how much more valuable as a future teacher and healer and guide, is the person who has a full, first-hand understanding of a particular human weakness or failing or problem, but who has then risen from this place of dark insight to see the true dimensions of this problem.

Bergoglio openly labels himself a sinner, continually points out that this is not a mere turn of phrase. He has sinned. He goes even further, controversially stating that it is not enough to enact the ritual of confession of sins to a priest, with the penalty being nothing more than the repeating of a short prayer three times and a pledge to try to sin no more.

No, instead one must take practical steps to atone for those sins in one’s daily life, make real and deep changes. No one gets a clean scorecard with just a quick visit to a black, priest-inhabited box. One must act. As he has said: “Sin is more than a stain that can be removed by a trip to the dry cleaner. It is a wound, that needs to be treated, healed.”

This logic suggests a true reformist agenda, one that – if permitted – would reach naturally into many other areas of belief and doctrinal teaching. Why, for instance, should a celibate priest feel confident to lecture on sexual matters?

Surely the church ought, with similar frankness, to admit it is not best qualified to impose its views in this arena. How, for instance, can a celibate novice priest, when asked to renounce sex for the rest of his life, be wise enough to know what he is saying no to? He cannot know. If this naif has never explored his own sexual drives, what is he to do should these drives one day make themselves felt? Like so many before him, he will forced into a double life, with sometimes disastrous consequences.

Or how should such celibate, sex-denying men judge their sexually active parishioners, whose experience of life will be much more complete and varied than theirs? What makes them fit to say that only celibate men are fitting vessels for teaching God’s ministry? If the spirit of Francis’s frankness is logically extended into all areas of faith and dogma, where will the recalibrations end?

The key dramatic tensions explored in The Two Popes are those of a Vatican in crisis, swamped by scandals but denied simple remedies, aware of the need to change but fearful of what losses change will bring. There’s one pope (Benedict) who – because of his past – feels himself lacking in the moral authority, skills and strength to deal with these particular scandals; and a second pope, who – because of his past – feels himself too much a sinner to spiritually lead more than a billion followers.

It is a fascinating hinge-moment in the life of an institution whose flame has burned for 2,000 years. How it copes with these challenges will, in large part, decide its future.

The Two Popes is on Netflix now. Anthony McCarten’s book of the same name is published by Penguin


Anthony McCarten

The GuardianTramp

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